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November 10, 2021

Online University Experience

More Than Just "Military Friendly"

On Veterans Day, we honor the courageous men and women who've served and done so much for us all.

By Michael Glazebrook, Senior Manager of Regional Strategic Partnerships for WGU Texas and South Region, and a Marine Veteran. Kathy Hietala, Strategic Partnerships Manager for WGU Texas and South Region and is a veteran of the U.S. Navy.  

Joining the military is a serious decision that all service members arrive at for various reasons: a sense of duty, patriotism, or an opportunity to pursue new goals. Such opportunities present themselves both during and after service, and the opportunity to further your education allows those in service to achieve their true potential. 

Today’s military is the most educated force in U.S. history. According to the Pew Research Center, more than eight in ten active-duty officers have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 42 percent hold an advanced degree. Officers are four times as likely as average adults ages 18 to 44 to have completed a postgraduate degree. Enlisted personnel also boast higher levels of educational attainment, with 92 percent of enlisted service members having completed high school or some college compared with 60 percent of all U.S. adults ages 18 to 44.

Many credit these numbers to the extension and advancement of the GI Bill—with the most recent iteration, the Post-9/11 GI Bill (PGIB), now automatically opting in service members for financial aid benefits at the beginning of their enlistment. This benefit can be used during or after service and can also be extended to a service member’s dependents—even earmarked for one or more children to be used years in the future.

But even with built-in tuition assistance that can be used at the program of their choosing, at the time of their choosing, only a fraction of veterans take advantage of the financial aid program. A study conducted by West Point Associate Professor Michael S. Kofoed and published by the Brookings Institute in October 2020 found that only 40.67 percent of Army veterans use their PGIB benefits. And while gender, race and ethnicity correlated with differences in usage rates, surprisingly, the study also found that veterans from Southern and Midwestern states tend to use their PGIB less over time — a trend the author said policymakers should be concerned about as “Southern veterans tend to only use their benefits around forty percent of the time, when the South supplies the Army with nearly half of its recruits.”

Perhaps the biggest obstacle for service members is the concern of how to fit a quality degree program into a demanding, less predictable lifestyle. Even post-service, committing to additional education can feel unnecessary and daunting as they transition to civilian life.  

There’s a phrase used in ad campaigns and ranking lists for colleges and universities across the country: “military friendly.” This designation means we recognize and support the military, but what service members also need is “military focused” because there’s a world of difference between accommodating and tailoring the higher education experience to the needs of active-duty and prior-service students.  

We need more colleges and universities to seek not just to enroll veterans but to cater to their obligations and measure and apply their service-retained skills and competencies toward their degrees. As an example, competency-based education allows for ebbs and flows in productivity and often results in students achieving their degrees at a much faster pace than if they had enrolled in a traditional program. With the technological advances and a cultural shift toward virtual learning, online, competency-based curriculums should be the norm—especially for schools that wish to be “military focused.” 

The six branches of the U.S. military provide unparalleled opportunity for armed forces and veterans to further their education by covering the bulk of the cost. Still, learning must be convenient and flexible. Higher education institutions need to continue to find ways to help veterans and active-duty members finish degrees more quickly, work remotely from their base or station, take courses online from anywhere, provide tuition assistance programs and scholarships whenever possible—the list goes on. On this Veterans Day, we can honor those who served and do right for the courageous men and women who've done so much for us all.

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